This article revolves around three questions: (1) Does translating din as ‘religion’ imply that it is only a private matter, having nothing at all to do with the public sphere – which is what people usually associate with the term religion? (2) If iman is translated as ‘faith’, does that not suggest it is ‘blind faith’ – which, again, is what many people think when they hear the word ‘faith’; that it is belief without evidence? (3) And what is the type of nazr -“reasoned reflection” – that the Qur’an constantly urges us with, so that people do not have blind faith in God or in the Qur’an?
Back in 2013, I wrote that the theologically correct term for a non-Muslim who becomes a Muslim is a ‘convert’, not a ‘revert’! After all, the Prophet ﷺ, whilst informing us that all people are born on the fitrah (predisposing them to the message of tawhid and Islam), he never actually said to those who became Muslim that, ‘You have re-entered Islam’, or ‘You have become Muslim again’. In other words, you have reverted. Instead, his call to people was simply: aslim – ‘enter into Islam,’ ‘submit,’ ‘become a Muslim’.1 He never asked them to ‘re-enter’ Islam; to revert! Or take the words of Ibn Mas‘ud, may God be pleased with him, when he said: ‘We have not ceased to be strong since the time ‘Umar accepted Islam (mundhu aslama ‘umar).’2 Again, he didn’t say: since the time ‘Umar ‘re-entered Islam’ or ‘reverted back to Islam.’
In the end I said that maybe it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps there’s room in the language for both words: convert and revert (even if the first is theologically correct, and the other is not; and even if it’s the ‘revert posse’ that usually gets all agitated about it). Perhaps it’s just a case of a storm in a teacup?
Here I’ll interrogate two more Islamic terms which, if translated inaccurately or poorly, can lead to great obfuscation or significantly alter the sense of the word. Of course, there are some words which, no matter how painstakingly a translator attempts to render them into good, appropriate English, much will still be lost in translation:
1 – The first one is din. Often translated as ‘religion’, though many Muslims feel that this is a rather inadequate rendering of the word, and that ‘way of life’ would be more in keeping with the inclusiveness the word implies.
In classical Arabic, din means jaza’ – ‘recompense’ or ‘requital’ for acts done. It can also mean obedience (ta‘ah) and humility (dhillah). Islam as a din, therefore, is to obey Allah and to submit to Him in humility. The origin or etymology of the word din also relates to dayn – ‘debt’. In this reading, din is something we owe God by way of worship and loving submission that is due to Him from us.3 The upshot of this is that Islam as din requires believers to order their affairs so that this submission to God is reflected in every aspect of life; from the personal to the political.
Many say that in its etymology, religion comes from the Latin word religare – ‘to bind.’ In this sense, religion is that relationship which binds us to what is regarded as holy, sacred, divine, or worthy of special reverence. It also relates to the way people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and fate after death.
Given the meaning of din in classical or Quranic Arabic, and the sense that is conveyed by religion in English, religion doesn’t seem such a far-fetched way of rendering the word din into English – if it were not for the following:
Although long in the making, by the twentieth century religion no longer articulated the common social good as it once did. Instead, religion was relegated to the private sphere. This privatisation of faith is now the default assumption when we moderns, at least here in Western Europe, usually speak of religion. Previously, religious expression had been a total one. The Enlightenment’s vision of spheres outside the provenance of religion led to confining religion to a tighter space than it had ever occupied. Some, though, distinguish between ‘catholic’ and ‘protestant’ conceptions of religion. Jonathan Sacks, quoting Ernst Simon, defined as catholic ‘those religions which seek to sanctify all aspects of the life of the individuals and the community – eating, drinking, work, rest, welfare and legislation, love and war.’ ‘Protestant’ religions arose, he says, when significant areas of public life were wrested from religious guidance or authority. ‘Modernity for Jews,’ he writes, ‘meant the protestentisation of a deeply catholic faith.’4 The same may now be said for Islam and Muslims.
The question of whether liberal modernity can accept Religion in other than a ‘protestant’ mould is, despite its commitment to an alleged religious tolerance, one that it has yet to clearly answer. Can ‘catholic’ forms of religion – religions that do not separate the sacred from the secular; ones that claim a right; the duty, even, to order their affairs so that the teachings of faith are reflected in every aspect of life – continue to function and flourish without being spiritually emaciated; or reduced to a toothless tigers; or swiftly be branded as extremists and enemies of the civic order? Religion often involves living life on a wing and a prayer.
To conclude: It might not be necessary to go on an all out campaign against ‘religion’ as a translation for din. But we may have to spell out its ‘catholic’ undercurrents whenever we Muslims guardedly choose to employ it.
2 – The other problematic term is ‘faith’ as a translation for iman. Here, whatever else any Muslim theologian (or even a Christian one, for that matter) intends by the word, faith is now deemed by many to be something ill-founded, irrational, against the evidence; even. Spearheading this charge is Richard Dawkins who insists that ‘religious faith … does not depend on rational justification.’5 In fact, ‘Faith’, he states, ‘requires no justification and brooks no argument.’6 The prevalent mood today is that science is about facts and proof, while religion is about mere opinion or faith – by which is meant: credulity; an inclination to believe without sufficient evidence.
So what is the Islamic definition of iman? And how much does it tally up with the idea of faith? And is faith itself something unreasonable, or devoid of reasonable evidence? Let’s briefly go through them one at a time:
Lexically, iman means tasdiq – to ‘affirm’ or ‘attest to’ the truth, reality or correctness of something. Technically, iman is to affirm as true all that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was sent with, in terms of revelation and religion. Iman, therefore, is a state in which the heart accepts God’s truth and lives by it. Although theologians have differed over the exact link, mainstream Islamic theology, nevertheless, confirms that iman involves an unmistakable correlation between inner beliefs of the heart and outer actions of the limbs.7 Moreover, the deeper and profounder the iman, the greater is the sense of aman – the inner ‘peace’ and ‘security’ gifted by God. Leaving aside its link to actions, it might appear that iman is no different to the current picture of faith as unsubstantiated belief (as per New Atheism’s novel, but reductionist definition), were it not for the following:
The Qur’an says, describing one of the many traumatic laments that those who rejected Islam will have with one another in the Afterlife: And they will say: ‘Had we but listened or used our intelligence, we would not now be among the people of the Blazing Fire.’ [Q.67:10] Anyone who has read the Qur’an, even in a cursory manner, will not have failed to notice its repetitive instance to think, reflect, consider, and use one’s faculty of reason (‘aql): So, for instance, the Qur’an says: Say: ‘I exhort you to one thing: that you awake for God’s sake, in pairs and individually, and then reflect.’ [Q.34:46] So the Qur’an invites people; cajoles them, even, to employ their sense of reason to deliberate over its message: Thus does God make clear to you His signs that you may reason, [Q.2:242], and that they may understand, [Q.6:65]: or that they may reflect, [Q.7:176] So: Will they not reflect? [Q.6:50].
The Qur’an, therefore, doesn’t demand blind faith. Nor does it ask that we accept without some convincing evidence God’s existence or presence in the cosmos. Instead, it asks that we reflect and consider as evidence the nature of the universe and whether it points to an atheistic understanding of the universe by cosmic fluke, or to the existence of a Designer-God who intended for sentient life to emerge in the universe? Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of the night and day, there are signs for those of intelligence. [Q.3:190] Taking a look at the world or at the larger universe, has led many people to conclude that there must be an intelligent, purposeful creator behind it all. This Creator, sound reasoning can tell us, must be eternal; without cause; but is the uncaused cause of all things. The very existence of our universe rather than an eternal nothingness (i.e. that there is something rather than nothing); the emergence of complex, sentient life; let alone the fine tuning of the universe – these offer proof for the existence of a Creator-God. Many scientists, from Newton to Einstein, or John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins in contemporary times, see these aspects of the universe as evidence of a designer. So to claim, as Dawkins and his ilk do, that theistic Religion isn’t rooted in any rational, reason-based evidence is being disingenuous. It’s just not true! For a believer, the entire cosmos is full of shawahid, witnesses, to the awe and splendour of the Divine Existence.
If using our senses and reason to consider the nature of the universe yields some general understanding about God, it is the Qur’an where the rich details are to be found of an All-Merciful, Beneficent God with whom we can seek closeness and loving intimacy. And just as Islam doesn’t require blind faith in God, the Qur’an itself insists that it be interrogated to see if it is really the Word of God: Will they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from other than God, they would have found therein many contradictions. [Q.4:82] Do they claim: ‘He has invented it?’ No, they have no faith. Let them produce a speech like it, if what they say be true! [Q.52:33-34]
So nowhere does the Qur’an require blind acceptance of it or its fundamental theological tenets. Rather, it insists that people use their God-given sense of reason and ponder over its assertions and truths. And while the final step is, ultimately, a ‘leap of faith’, the actual run up to it is a matter that engages, not just heart and soul, but the faculty of mind and reason too. Indeed, mainstream Sunni theology has honoured this quest for reason-based faith when it says: tajibu ma‘rifatu’Llah ta‘ala shar‘an bi’l-nazr fi’l-wujud wa’l-mawjud ‘ala kulli mukallaf qadir – ‘It is a religious requirement upon ever sane person of legal capacity to know God through reflection upon existents and creation.’8 And while Sunni theology settled on accepting as valid iman that has not come about via nazr, but through taqlid; imitation, the thrust of Islam’s theological project – in order to shake off doubt (shakk) or any skepticism (shubhah) – is towards reflection, reasonable consideration and intelligent inquisitiveness.
The requirement to reflect (nazr) is a casual, general one for those who can only do so in broad outlines, and detailed for those who have the ability to get into the more nitty-gritty stuff. A modern education should allow most people to fall somewhere in the middle. And whilst for some lay Muslims, this theological insistence on nazr is honoured more in the breach than the observance, the principle, nonetheless, remains. If it is not nazr upon the cosmos and the nature of the created order, then the believer is expected to employ such nazr to the Qur’an’s truth claim; or to the profundity, simplicity, honesty and integrity of the Prophet’s life and character ﷺ; or for those who lived during or close to the prophetic age, the Muhammadan miracles that have either been witnessed, or mass transmitted, or reliably heard. Whatever the case, faith is to be based on nazr and the conviction (yaqin) it yields. As for recognising God through the fitrah; one’s innate disposition, then given that the modern world has so radically and literally altered our thinking patterns, habits of the heart, and how we intuit and perceive things, it would be unwise to use that as an excuse not to engage in some level of nazr.
To wind-up: The idea that in Islam one is expected to have ‘blind faith’ doesn’t tally with the revealed texts or the mainstream theological teachings. The challenge for Dawkins et al. is to engage the actual arguments from theistic theology; not a strawman of their own creation. As for the word faith (or belief) as a translation for iman, despite its drawbacks or misrepresentations, I’m not sure what else could be used as a suitable replacement?
1. See: Al-Bukhari, no.1356.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.3684.
3. See: al-Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 321; and al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 1:120-21.
4. Sacks, The Persistence of Faith (London: Continuum, 2005), 4.
5. The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2008), 31.
6. ibid., 308.
7. Cf. Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz, Sharh al-‘Aqidat al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1999), 2:505-35; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawhar al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 90-103.
8. Ibn Balban, Qala’id al-‘Iqyan (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2015), 94, 143.